By Norah Walsh
As I am nearing the end of my undergraduate career at UMW, I’ve had a long, tumultuous relationship with the FAFSA, as every fall I had to get together with my mother to sort through tax documents and fill out the application, which was hard even for us—two native English speakers—to understand.
As my mother’s salary has increased every year since I filled out the application for the first time in 2019 for the 2020–2021 academic year, my expected family income has also increased, which influences how much federal aid I can receive. This is an issue, however, because my parents don’t pay for my tuition, and I’ve been financially independent since I came to college. As a result, though my expected family income may reflect a certain salary, it doesn’t paint an accurate image of my own personal financial situation. As a result, because the FAFSA doesn’t count students as independents until Jan. 1 of the year they turn 24, students pursuing an undergraduate degree must include their parent’s salary or find an exemption through FAFSA’s unusual or special circumstances procedures.
Devin Schwers, a senior political science major, is in the same boat, as his parent’s salary is considered on his FAFSA, but he pays UMW’s tuition himself.
“My FAFSA does consider that I’m a dependent of my parents, which is actually kind of inconvenient for me based on my parent’s income,” he said.
In reference to how the FAFSA considers the expected family income, he said, “They have a sort of assumed amount for what they’re contributing to my tuition, however they’re not contributing anything towards my tuition, so I end up getting a really low amount of financial aid from FAFSA.”
On Oct. 1, Amy Jessee, the executive director of university communications, sent out an email to the student body that relayed information about scholarships for study abroad programs whose deadline is Nov. 15, the email informed the addressees that the FAFSA would open in December rather than Oct. 1, two months later than usual. To account for this, the priority deadline was also extended to March 1, 2024.
The delay was caused by the need to finalize further revisions of the FAFSA Simplification Act—referred to as FSA—and I hoped that the dilemma that I, as well as many other students like Schwers, experience might be solved, as the last phase of the Act, which will influence the 2024-2025 academic year, enacts several changes in policies and procedures meant to increase accessibility to student aid.
However, that was not the case, for the Simplification Act preserved the Higher Education Act’s definition of an independent, which is “a student is determined to be independent if the student meets any of a list of criteria, including (but not limited to) being 24 years of age on January 1 of the award year, being married, having dependents, or being a veteran of the Armed Forces.”
If students do not meet these requirements, they are required to include their parental information unless their situation is defined as being an unusual or special circumstance as long as they’re under 24 years old, as they’re still considered dependents until then.
According to the FSA, an “unusual circumstance” is when the “student is unable to contact a parent or where contact with parents poses a risk to such student,” as well as in cases of “human trafficking, legally granted abandonment or estrangement, or student or parental incarceration.”
These considerations are massively important, but being able to receive aid should not be limited to having suffered through these conditions or require that students have proof of parental abandonment or estrangement, as the latter circumstance is not always associated with tangible documentation, even though it may be the student’s reality. Additionally, a student should not be penalized as a result of their parent’s inability or refusal to pay their child’s tuition.
For students like Schwers who pay their own tuition even though their parent’s income is required on the FAFSA, loans and scholarships are the only chance to receive any assistance.
“My parents do not pay for my tuition; I’m entirely self-funded on student loans,” said Schwers. “My first year I used Discover and now I’m on Sallie Mae loans.”
In the case of less dire experiences that leave students desiring independent status, students can claim special circumstances, which are defined as “financial situations (loss of a job, etc.),” according to the Federal Aid website.
The main issue that remains, even with these new amendments, is the vagueness with which “special circumstances,” as well as other terms, are defined. This means that students are subject to professional judgment of their circumstances without much knowledge of whether or not their circumstances would qualify, and that’s only if they commit to this process of explaining and justifying their situation to a financial aid administrator.
To advocate for this special circumstance to justify an independent student status, students must submit additional documentation, such as “a documented interview between the student and the financial aid administrator” or “supplementary information as necessary about the financial status or personal circumstances of eligible applicants as it relates to the special circumstances,” according to the Federal Student Aid website.
As was the case when I went through this process, the Federal Student Aid website explains, “Institutions must make and document professional judgment determinations on a case-by-case basis without regard to how broadly an event may affect its student population.”
According to UMW’s Financial Aid website, the requests for special circumstance consideration apply in the case of a change in household size, which pertains to marriage, divorce, or the number of dependents that should be considered on the FAFSA, a change in income due to external factors and unusual medical expenses.
An additional struggle with the FAFSA is the element of time. According to the Federal Student Aid website, the process of review should be completed “as quickly as practicable, but no later than 60 days after the student enrolls.”
This means that a student could enroll in the university of their choice without the knowledge of how much aid they’re going to receive. Furthermore, for students who cannot afford tuition, they have to find alternative routes of paying their tuition without any knowledge of their aid status.
So, because institutions are given the responsibility of this review, in cases where the University of Mary Washington does not consider special circumstances, such as voluntary job loss, taking out money from a retirement fund or other types of lost income, students are left at the mercy of the institution to decide what aid they will receive. This also pertains to students who have to include their parent’s income but don’t receive financial assistance from them.
So, while change is afoot with the FAFSA, there are still so many barriers that stand in the way of receiving financial aid for students who are deemed dependents on their FAFSA, even though their parents aren’t footing the bill. This element, on top of the element of vagueness, contributes to the complications that come with applying for federal aid, which makes financial assistance all the more difficult to receive.
A previous version of this article misstated graduate eligibility for the FAFSA It has since be updated that graduate students are considered independent on the FAFSA.